National Capitol – Restoring Symbols
National Capitol: Restoring Symbols / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya
Posted on October 21, 2015
Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 5 October 2015 — In recent days the
official Cuban press published a report on the National Capitol building
restoration work currently underway, in order to get it ready for the
operation of the National Assembly at an unspecified future date.
Unfortunately, the report suffers from inaccuracies and from the typical
flourishes of the Cuban school of journalism, which focuses more on the
emotions of the author during his quick tour of the works and his
personal adventure aboard a winch at over 262 feet above ground than on
the truly interesting questions that might interest a fairly astute
reader, for instance, the total cost of the work five years after the
start of the project, which has already exceeded the length of time that
it took to construct the iconic building, or the reasons that led to the
decision to return this structure to its original function of hosting
Parliament after its deliberate and systematic destruction and its
Republican values by the willpower of Castro I.
Another interesting detail would be to find out whether the great 25
carat diamond will be returned to its original place at the feet of the
Statue of the Republic, under the 301-foot high cupola, a spot marking
Kilometer Zero of that other icon of Cuban civil engineering, the
Central Highway. This point seems particularly allusive, since the
referenced report includes that this building receives grade one
protection, that is, that the building’s original configuration should
be preserved and unaltered, including both structural and ornamental
The Enigma of “Kilometer Zero”
Thus, in addition to the issue of the enormous cost of the magnificent
building’s rehabilitation in the midst of a city whose housing stock is
literally falling apart, the current restoration of the National Capitol
places the enigma of its diamond back in the limelight, a topic
deserving of its own separate chronicle.
The gem is surrounded by legend, and it is said to have belonged to a
Russian czar, and to have arrived in Cuba in the hands of a Turkish
jeweler who bought it in France. Prior to that, its origin is ambiguous
and hazy. What we know for sure is that it was bought by the government
of General Gerardo Machado y Morales (1925-1933) and destined to meet
the young Republic’s excessive national vanity when it was planted in
the main floor of the emblematic Capitol.
During the second presidency of Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín (1944-1948) it
was rumored to have been stolen by an obscure police lieutenant or by a
corrupt official. The mystery has never been cleared up completely, but
the diamond was returned to the base of the Statue of the Republic,
where it remained in view of visitors until 1973.
From that time, the fate of the controversial gem is a complete
mystery, when without notice and under circumstances unknown to the
public, the decision to replace it with a replica was made. Reportedly,
the original was placed in the vault of the Cuban National Bank. There
is no reliable testimony or evidence to corroborate the story, but
popular speculation has it that the omnipotent dictator, former
President Fidel Castro, assumed ownership of the gem. There are also
those “in the know” who say that the precious stone was removed from the
country years ago, under the auspices of the autocrat himself, but
neither of these versions has been confirmed and those truly or
supposedly involved have kept absolute silence on this matter.
A Return Road
Over five decades ago, and in the name of a revolution with a short life
but with devastating and prolonged effects, the Capitol building was
seized by the Unmentionable. The chambers of Congress were disabled and
the majestic building was delivered in the early 1960’s to the then
newborn Cuban Academy of Sciences, an institution with congenital
malformations, whose cost and name would far exceed its functions. This
institution was responsible for methodically destroying most of the
heritage furniture and other interior facilities of the property.
Over a period of several years, successive partitions were constructed
inside the Capitol building which affected the walls and columns, while
the interior gardens at the north and south wings and the light
fixtures, plumbing, stained glass, mirrors, curtains, tapestries and
frescoes decorating the interior suffered the ravages of the neglect and
rapacity of the new occupants.
Meanwhile, basements often flooded and were not drained at appropriate
intervals, so the resulting moisture affected hydraulic and electrical
Under the arch of the staircase, the Tomb of the Unknown Mambí* and
related statues were desecrated for decades, since this area was
regularly used to load and unload “maintenance” service trucks, and
eventually became a virtual automotive repair shop for the Academy.
The exterior Versailles-style original gardens were gradually
transformed into makeshift sports areas where children and adolescents
would skate and play soccer or baseball, to the consequent detriment of
the gardens, while the constant plodding of pedestrians through them
turned the once green lawns into dirt footpaths.
The outer corners at the foot of the Chambers had become literally
impassable because they were saturated by the stench of those passersby
who regularly used the area to relieve themselves, while the rear
esplanade became places where senior groups would do their morning
exercises, and the side ramps of the majestic stairs served as slides
for all the surrounding neighborhoods’ kids to play on.
All the surrounding areas oozed with the filth and decay inherent in the
system. It might be said the government’s intent was to subject, through
humiliation, the stunning arrogance of this proud symbol of the Republic.
Towards the end of the 1980’s another one of the raves of Castro I —
“the greatest” Library of Science and Technology in Latin America —
played havoc with the rich collection of the Cuban Library of Congress,
which miraculously had hitherto remained relatively intact and safe from
voracious predation. Lots of valuable books, fruit of human knowledge
and treasures of world culture ended up strewn and on piles on the floor
of the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (The Gallery of Lost Steps) at the
mercy of the violence of some “scientists” turned-retailers, a fact that
-of course- was not documented by the official press or by government
institutions, but one that numerous eyewitnesses and I can attest to.
Someday, this episode should be included among the losses caused to
Cubans by so much official vandalism, and we should demand reparation.
The brand new library never reached the heights that The
Amazing-in-Chief dreamed of, nor fulfilled the functions over which such
mayhem took place. Thus, apathy and detriment continued to rule over the
Capitol, turning it into a pitiable spectrum of what it was during the
Republic. Interestingly, the product of what so many engineers,
architects and artists created had been almost destroyed by the power of
However, to everyone’s surprise, despite the economic crisis facing the
country, and counter to the growing needs of the population, the largest
restoration ever made to the Cuban National Capitol is currently being
undertaken by the Office of the City’s Historian.
As usual, the authorities have not bothered to report the amounts and
sources of funds that have been earmarked for construction. Transparency
is not a quality that adorns autocracies, and the “reformist” spirit of
the General-President is not enough, but it is assumed that the
restoration of the rich stained glass windows, the bronzes, the marble,
the tapestries, the sculptures, the frescoes, the furnishings and the
precious woods, plus the carpentry to restore doors and windows to their
original appearance, will reach a very large sum.
To date, they have already completed work on most of the north wing of
the building and its gardens, now visible to the public. Project leaders
want to tempt the public with a preview of its restored appearance.
Perhaps in a not too distant future, people in Havana traveling through
the area will gaze at that colossal symbol of the city with renewed
pride. By then, another phase may be over of the curious cycle of the
return to symbols — and only symbols — of the Republican tradition
orchestrated by Castro II. Perhaps many Cubans, with the patience worthy
of better causes, will resign themselves to gaze over the beautiful
gardens and the imposing Capitol glamour, to later return to their daily
hopelessness and poverty. Or maybe they will decide to change their own
reality, convinced that restoration of prosperity and democracy are not
included in government projects.
*Rebels from the Cuban Wars of Independence from Spain
Source: National Capitol: Restoring Symbols / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya |
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